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What Shade the Stone: Some Late Night Thoughts on Color and Curation in Archaeology

The Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas became part of the Geography and Map Division several years ago and contains Pre-Columbian archaeological objects, maps, like Waldseemüller’s famous 1516 Carta Marina, and manuscripts and rare books relating to the earliest history of America. The dates of the collection span a wide range from 1100 BC until the mid-18th century. Part of collection is on permanent rotating display in the Exploring the Early Americas Exhibit in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library, with the remainder of the objects housed in the recently opened Kislak Study Collection in the vaults of the Geography and Map Division. There they may be studied by scholars by contacting the collection curator John Hessler ([email protected]).

This post is part of an occasional series that will feature new research, thoughts on the curation and imaging of archaeological objects, and highlights of objects from the Kislak collection.

Our ordinary language has no means for describing a particular shade of color. Thus it is incapable of producing a picture of this color. –Wittgenstein, Remarks on Color

Goethe’s theory of the origin of the spectrum isn’t a theory of its origin that has proved unsatisfactory; it is really not a theory at all. Nothing can be predicted by means of it. It is, rather, a vague schematic outline […]. There is no experimentum crucis for Goethe’s theory of colour. –Wittgenstein, Remarks on Color

Last week I was in London doing research at the British Museum’s offsite storage facility, located at Blyth House, working on plaster casts of some of the most important Maya epigraphy to have survived from the Classic Period (600-900 CE).  These casts, which were produced by the archaeologist and photographer Alfred Maudslay at the end of the nineteenth century, represented, in many ways, the state-of the-art in archaeological reproduction and imaging at the time.  Drawings made of the inscriptions, so accurately recorded in low-relief on the these fragile plaster surfaces, by the artist Anne Hunter, helped pave the way for the later twentieth century decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphic writing.
Author examining hieroglyphic casts at Blyth House in London. Photograph by Jago Cooper, Curator, British Museum.

Author examining hieroglyphic casts at Blyth House in London. Photograph by Dr. Jago Cooper, Curator of the Americas at the British Museum, London.

The experience of seeing the casts in person and looking at some of the sketches made by Hunter started me thinking about what must have been one of most perplexing tasks of past archaeological curation, namely, the difficulties in illustrating and reproducing archaeological objects in a way that would accurately reflect the originals so as to make them more readily available and useful to scholars.

Cast Room at Blyth House, British Museum, London. Photograph taken by author.

Cast Room at Blyth House, British Museum, London. Photograph taken by author.

The word “curated” has unfortunately become one of the most overused expressions for anyone trying to give the impression of “an educated selection”, and has been adopted by a wide range of boutique retail shops trying to associate themselves with a more elite clientele. Curation however, in the museum context at least, has a much deeper meaning. A recent book by Hans Ulrich Obrist, called, Ways of Curating, explores what it is to actually be a curator in the modern museum world and provides valuable insight for anyone who is interested in the changing face of museum work . For Obrist, curation is as much about science as it is about art, and is a truly creative endeavor.

Original sketch bu the artist Ann Hunter made from Alfred Maudslay's casts. Collections of the Anthropology Library and Research Center, British Museum, London.

Original sketch by the artist Ann Hunter made from Alfred Maudslay’s casts. Collections of the Anthropology Library and Research Center, British Museum, London.

Obrist’s curators, of which he is one of the most prominent working today, do more than select art for exhibition and acquisition, but must also be involved in research, preservation, and perhaps most critically, in trying to bridge the gap between the museum goer, who might not be well versed in what he or she is looking at, and the art’s creator, no matter whether they were an ancient Maya potter, or a modern digital video or performance artist.

This problem is, of course, very different today than it was in the past with our ability to covert both two-dimensional media and three-dimensional objects into accurate digital images that can be manipulated in virtual and digital spaces in much the same way as the originals (for more on the 3D imaging of objects in the Kislak Collection go to In the Shadow of Maudslay). This ability to make realistic images, along with our easy access to the web, makes interaction with scholars and the distribution of digital surrogates much simpler than it was just a few short years ago.

Online exhibitions, some of which rise to the level of video games and create virtual worlds, have become part and parcel of the curation process and go a long way to giving interested onlookers, who are perhaps unable to visit the actual installation, a feel for the real exhibition space, and in most cases provide more background and contextual materials than can be presented in a gallery.

Not so long ago however, if a museum wanted to create copies for scholarly study, more ingenious methods had to be thought up in order to give readers, scholars and the interested public an idea of what an object looked like and even more problematic, how it was colored.

Coloration has always been a serious difficulty in the reproduction of archaeological images and models and is in some cases critical for the study and comparison of objects. Coloration is especially important when working with objects that were mobile, traded, and not fixed to any particular monumental architecture or geographic location. One such kind of object is Mesoamerican jade. Many of the earliest researchers studying jade, like the geologist William Foshag (1894-1956), of the Smithsonian Institution, and Tatiana Proskouriakoff (19091-1985), of the Peabody Museum, worked out inventive coloration schemes for the jades they observed both in the field and in their respective collections. These schemes enabled readers of their work to get a sense of the color of the jades they cataloged and described, even if they could not see the real thing.

Foshag, not only came up with a color naming system for his jades which he published in his paper, Mineralogical Studies of Guatemalan Jades, in 1957, but he also took samples from many of the objects he studied, along with rubbings to document their form. Although the taking of chips might have yielded accurate and highly stable color samples, it is not a practice that would be condoned today.

Jade samples preserved in William Foshag's Jade Notebooks. Collections of the Archives of the Smithsonian Institution.

Jade samples preserved in William Foshag’s Jade Notebooks. Collections of the Archives of the Smithsonian Institution.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909-1985) took a different route to color. She was one of the great archaeologists of the last generation whose work on both the Maya language and the reconstruction of the jade objects, found in the Cenote of Sacrifice, at Chichen Itza, are considered by many to be two of the outstanding accomplishments of modern Maya archaeology.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff at Piedras Negras. Image Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff at Piedras Negras. Image Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Initially educated as an architect, she later went on to work for Linton Satterthwaite and for the University of Pennsylvania Museum at the Maya site of Piedras Negras in 1936–37. Her greatest intellectual contribution however, was a major breakthrough in the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic writing. Utilizing the new linguistic ideas of Yuri Knorozov, she discovered that the writing on monumental stela, found throughout the Maya world, were in fact historical in nature, recording the birth, accession, and death dates for Maya rulers. Analyzing the pattern of dates and hieroglyphs, she was able to demonstrate a sequence of seven rulers who ruled over a span of two hundred years.

Starting in 1958 until her death, she was a curator at the Peabody Museum at Harvard and worked on the reconstruction of Maya jades dredged up from the watery depths of the Cenote. The Cenote contained jade, wooden objects, bones, tools, jewelry, gold, and textiles and represents one of the most important Maya archaeological sites in the Yucatan of Mexico.

The jades found in the Cenote were recovered by the archaeologist Edward H. Thomas between 1910 and 1917 and for the most part were highly fragmentary and had to be reconstructed. Their fragmentary nature come about from the thermal shock experienced by most of them as they had been heated on the coals of an incense burner before being cast into the sacred waters of the Cenote.

Jade was traded widely in Mesoamerica and was one of the most important stones to the ancient Maya. The trade routes upon which it moved are still not well understood nor are the beginnings of its use and carving. The jades studied by Proskouriakoff come from across the Maya world as the Cenote at Chichen Itza was a popular pilgrimage site that contained many styles, colors and forms of this important mineral.

Classic Period Jade Plague from the Jay I. Kislak Collection. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Classic Period Jade Plague from the Jay I. Kislak Collection. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Proskouriakoff presented the fruits of her almost 20 years of research on the jades found by Thompson, along with her reconstructions, in a now seminal book entitled, Jades from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, published by the Peabody Museum for Archaeology and Ethnography, in 1974.

Page from Jades from the Cenote of Sacrifice showing Prouskouriakoff's reconstructions of fragmentary jades as gray areas. Kislak Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Page from Jades from the Cenote of Sacrifice showing Prouskouriakoff’s reconstructions of fragmentary jades as gray areas. Kislak Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Although the hundreds of reproductions in Proskouriakoff’s  book give one a good sense of the form of the object, an important missing element is color. Jade is found in a wide variety of colors from almost white, through the various familiar shades of green, all the way to purple and nearly black, depending on the kind of trace elements in contains.

Even though book was printed in black and white, Proskouriakoff does record the color of the jades by referencing a color standard developed to describe birds in the field by Robert Ridgway, the curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution (when it was called the United States National Museum), in 1912. The book, which is now quite rare, contains color samples of some 1115 individual named colors that Ridgway says are, “made from the finest pigments available.” Ridgway’s book is a marvel of color and presentation with both white and black standards on every page. The book itself was incredibly difficult to produce and was finally published only after the “most perplexing and discouraging problems in chemistry,” were solved.

One of the many green color plates from Ridgway's book used by Tatiana Proskouriakoff to describe the color of the jades from the Cenote of Sacrifice. Collections of the Library of Congress.

One of the many green color plates from Ridgway’s book used by Tatiana Proskouriakoff to describe the color of the jades from the Cenote of Sacrifice. Collections of the Library of Congress.

Many of the colors of the jades that are recorded from the Cenote have names like Hay’s and Rinnemann’s Green as shown in the plate above. In fact, Proskouriakoff develops a typology of jades, categorizing 15 classes based purely on appearance with no reference to mineralogical type.  She tries as best a she can to describe what the jade looks like in language,  breaking her classes into more detailed subclasses, for example writes of her Class 2 jades:

Class 2

Jades of vivid, concentrated green. No grain is visible in the green, which tends to diffuse as it merges with colorless matter. Several distinct varieties may be distinguished.

Class 2a. Probably the finest of jades, a brilliant Killarney or Hay’s Green, subtranslucent, with only occasional colorless patches and black blotches or veins that may be due to burning.


This was a truly original way to express the color dimension and allowed those who could not come to see the originals to at least gain some sense of the wide range of colors represented by the jades in the Cenote of Sacrifice. In this work Proskouriakoff had hoped to advance some of the research that had been accomplished by Foshag, and also by A.V. Kidder, by looking at the possible locations of various jades styles, performing what today we might call a spatial network analysis. She recognized the problem with trying to understand the provenance of much of the jade that had been discovered at the Cenote, explaining that,

[…] the Sacrificial Cenote collection offers us few new data on the uses of jade, since no assemblages have been found. The amount of material, however, permits some observations on the association of distinct jade varieties with certain styles and techniques of carving. Both Foshag and Kidder note that in Guatemala the quality of jades tends to differ in different regions. At Kaminaljuyu, Foshag distinguished seven varieties of jade, four of which were jadeities, and the others, diopside jade, albitic jade, and chloromelinaite. He observed that these jades fall into a much more uniform and distinct classes than do the jades from Nebaj, and he was unable to incorporate the latter into his system.

This kind of regional variation in style, color, and mineral type has yet to be systematically worked out for Mesoamerican jades and is the subject of my current research which uses GIS to map these differences and creates heat maps of the number of geo-tagged jades.

Color has always been a difficult concept, and as expressed in the quote that opened this post, it can only be experienced and not really described in language[1]. As Stephan Houston writes,

[…] the act of seeing far outstrips the ability of language to name color. An infinity of perceptions has no possible match in a finite set of labels, no matter how inventive or poetically conceived those labels might be.

If, as Obrist’s tells us, curation is mostly imagination and creativity, then Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s color scheme was truly imaginative, referencing color through names and samples that could be seen, and, although they could not capture the  infinite variability of perception, were certainly an interesting example and practical solution to at least one curatorial problem…..

[1] Readers interested in the concepts and theories surrounding color in Mesoamerica should read, Veiled Brightness: A History of Ancient Maya Color, by Stephen Houston and Claudia Brittenham, published by the University of Texas Press (2009). The book presents a history of the many theories of color, along with a concise survey Maya color terms, as well as technical information relating to specific pigments, dyes and paints used in the Classic period. Joseh Albers’ book, The Interaction of Color, is also recommended in that it provides an artists notes and optical exercises showing how colors interact with each other and produce particular effects. This title has been recently republished by Yale University Press. For those interested in color names and their cultural stability and variability in Mesoamerica see, Robert E. MacLaury’s Color and Cognition in Mesoamerica: Constructing Catagories and Vantages from 1996, which details fieldwork in collecting color names and meanings from more than 100 indigenous languages. For more on the significance of color in archaeological research see A. Jones and G. MacGregor’s edited collection, Colouring the Past: the significance of colour in archaeological research, from 2002. Lastly, the quote that opened this post comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour, which was inspired by his reading of Goethe’s Theory of Color (Zur Farbenlehre). Wittgenstein’s short book, even though extremely difficult, rewards close reading and has inspired reams of commentary.

One Comment

  1. LG
    May 5, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    Fascinating! The book suggestions — e.g. Veiled Brightness and The Interaction of Color– are much appreciated.

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